You might have seen that the Durham branch of KFC was plucked from relative obscurity recently when its interaction with a prospective employee went viral. The rejection letter they sent to Sophie Corcoran was so full of out-of-place puns that it ran a-fowl of all basic standards of how to break bad news. It obviously ruffled some feathers, given it was basically like getting turned down for a job by someone wearing a novelty chicken suit.

Look, there’s (clearly) a time and place for a good chicken pun. And even if KFC got it wrong this time, we can all learn from their experience. So here are three things we can takeaway – sorry, last one – from the debacle.

Know what your tone of voice is for

When you’re cooking up your own tone, it’s worth answering a few questions, like: when are you using it? How are you using it? What does best practice look like? And what does a worst-case scenario look like?

Humour isn’t the issue here. People, on the whole, like humour and if it works for your brand, go for it. You just don’t have to throw it in all the time – keep the tone, but change the contents according to taste. We manage it in day-to-day life – the things you say at the hen do won’t be the same as in the wedding speech – so companies can as well.

Young people are people too

Even though Millennials, Gen Z, and whoever comes next have a reputation for being “extremely online”, that doesn’t mean they’re extremely different. The odd gif here and there? Great. Speaking solely through the medium of memes? Probably a bit much.

It’s as if companies are suddenly scared of being seen as boring or too serious – forgetting that young people face climate crisis anxiety, spiralling living costs, and a world struck by an actual pandemic. They get serious.

Normally, the issue we face is persuading companies they can loosen up a bit – throw in some contractions, dump the acronyms, that sort of thing.

This might seem like the opposite issue, but it’s actually the same: overthinking your comms instead of planning them based on what works best for your target audience. Whether it’s too much slang or too much jargon, you’re still creating a barrier to good communication.

Don’t junk that tone

In a world where every misstep now has the potential to go global, there’s a tendency to focus on the few things that go wrong rather than all the stuff that works absolutely fine.

The concern is that this happens with KFC, or – more likely – other, smaller brands. The negative coverage (not including this article!) will cause them to back off, re-trench and see their own tone of voice as a threat, not an opportunity.

The KFC letter should be seen as a learning opportunity, not a cautionary tale to be whispered around team-building camp fires. You don’t have to throw the ‘some chicken puns’ baby out with the ‘too many chicken puns’ bathwater.

A more creative, thoughtful approach to the words you use (and the order you stick em in) will almost always do better than the same old standard boilerplate. 

And on the rare occasions like this where it doesn’t? Well, you can always fix it. It’s not so bad. Everyone clucks up once in a while.

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